Grief, Gratitude, and Guardian Angels

I missed the memo about grief, gratitude, and guardian angels.

A few weeks ago, I used this little platform to spread the word and raise money for my friend, Dianne.  To anyone who took the time to read about Dianne and to say a little prayer for her, I thank you.  If you kicked in a few dollars to help her family in their time of need, I thank you.  It was absolutely amazing to see the outpouring of support from friends and strangers alike.  There are truly angels among us, I think. (More on that in a second.)

When I received the news that Dianne had died, I was getting ready to take my son to a birthday party.  It was one of those parties in the park, complete with bouncy house and popcorn machine.   As I sat there in a rented plastic folding chair, trying to make small talk with the other moms, I really just wanted to scream.  It was making me kind of crazy to experience the celebration of one life while I grieved the loss of another.  It was surreal and uncomfortable, and I just counted the minutes until I could go home and cry.

But then the Angels showed up.

No, not actual celestial beings, but pretty damn close.  You see, the mom of the birthday boy happened to be from Brazil, so they got the party going, Carnival-style.  When the party games were ramping up, Mom and her sisters strapped on these amazing angel wings and danced around a bit.  Now, I’ve been to a few birthday parties in my day, and I’ve seen a few special guests in attendance.  Clowns?  Yes.  Princesses?  Absolutely.  Super Heroes?  Sure.  But angels?  This was a first.

And yeah, some of the dads were cracking wise with the Victoria's Secret jokes.
There must be an angel playing with my heart.                         (Bonus points if you remember that song.)

I’m usually not big on signs and superstition, but as I watched these gorgeous angels flitting about the party, I thought to myself, “Thank you, Dianne.”  The rational part of my brain acknowledges this was a simple coincidence, but my heart was lighter, nonetheless.

In the days since Dianne’s death, I’ve been experiencing grief and gratitude as two sides of the same coin.  I catch myself thinking of Dianne during hard moments…when I’m cleaning up toddler vomit, or stuck in traffic, or in some interminable work meeting,  or scrubbing the toilet the 6-year-old boy uses.  I know being diagnosed with cancer didn’t immunize Dianne from the petty frustrations of life,  but I can’t help thinking how grateful Dianne would have been if she had regained the strength to care for her kids the way she had wanted to, or how thrilled she would have been to be well enough to drive herself anywhere, and how happy she would have been to return to the career she had worked so hard to pursue.

I still complain way too much about all the things I’m healthy and strong enough to do. But now Dianne, the guardian angel of my perspective, will always inhabit a little corner of my heart and head. And sometimes, she reminds me to transform my complaints about having to do something into celebrating being able to do something.

I wish more than anything that Dianne did not have to be the messenger, so I am grieving and grateful, and memo received.

Craigslist, Cancer, and The Miracle of Flight.

I  missed the memo about Craigslist, Cancer, and the Miracle of Flight

I first discovered Craigslist when my husband and I cluelessly moved from Virginia to Los Angeles back in 2001.  Through the magic of Craigslist, we’ve acquired jobs, cars, furniture, free haircuts, and lots of other weird and wonderful stuff.  So in 2007 when I was cluelessly pregnant with my first child, I ventured into the Craigslist Pregnancy Forum in the hopes of finding less clueless kindred spirits.

I’ll admit it…at first it was overwhelming.  There were hundreds of people posting messages and it was hard to keep up.  But gradually, folks within the greater forum found their tribes, and I found mine.  All these many years later, there’s a group of us that have stayed close and grown closer as our kids have grown up.  More kids have come and we’ve shared all the challenges that have come with growing families.   We live all over the country, but through the magic of social media, we stay connected just about every day.   I love these women, and count them among my most treasured friends.


And some folks might make the distinction between “internet friends” and “real friends”,  but we’ve transcended that, I think.  And these people do exist.   I even have proof!  It’s to the point that we plan vacations together, which we all look forward to more than Christmas.


One of these treasured friends, Dianne Burrell, has Stage IV cancer.  Her first diagnosis came soon after the birth of her second child.  Dianne is a nurse and became a great advocate for her own care.  She underwent extensive surgeries and chemotherapy, and there seemed to be hope for a good long-term outcome.  But last year, a recurrence of her cancer was diagnosed.  Despite a fairly grim prognosis, Dianne has battled ferociously through the horrendous side-effects of every treatment protocol that might buy her some time.  Because that’s all she wants…more time.

Before I had kids, I was pretty cavalier about my mortality.  But having kids is a game changer.  This shift was described so well by story teller Bobby Stoddard on this recent episode of The Moth.  If you have a minute, go listen to his story, Flight.  You will laugh and cry.  And when you cry, please think of Dianne.  Because for Dianne, the prospect of leaving her kids is no longer just a heart-stopping nightmare, it’s her heartbreaking reality.
Dianne and Family, Fall 2014.  Gorgeous photo by Laura Morita Photography

When we hear stories like stories like Dianne’s I think there are two typical reactions…the first is, “Thank God that’s not me.” And the second, is, “This makes me feel helpless…what can I do?”  Friends and readers, there is something you can do and I am begging you to do it.  There’s a GoFundMe page set up to help Dianne and her family with some of the crushing expenses that have come with her illness.  Sadly, there’s not much that money can do at this point to help Dianne medically, but it will alleviate some of her worries.  Whatever you are moved to contribute, please give.  And please share Dianne’s story far and wide.  Here’s the link again:  Thank you and memo received.

The Bird, The Water, and The Most Important Thing I’ve Learned on the Internet

I missed the memo about The Bird, The Water, and The Most Important Thing I’ve Learned on the Internet.

I have a confession…I have a bit of a road rage problem.  I don’t follow other motorists menacingly or brandish weapons at them for their driving infractions, but I do something that’s a bit more self-destructive and cowardly…I flip them The Bird, usually super quickly, and under my steering wheel, so really the only person who knows I’ve done it is me.  I’m not saying this makes any sense, I’m just saying that this is what I do.

No. 1 Son at about 3 months old. The apple fell perilously close to the tree.

I’ve recently taken stock of this ridiculous behavior and decided I need to stop it.  And in my efforts to get a grip, I’m meditating a bit on the message from the simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring words of David Foster Wallace.  You guys may recall when this video made the rounds a year or two ago…it’s an abbreviated version of the commencement address that David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2005.  The title of the address “This Is Water” comes from the little joke used as the opener:

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?'”

Foster Wallace used the fish joke to illustrate the point “that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”  Foster Wallace goes on to explain that one of these realities is how we are all usually making ourselves the center of what we experience, and in so doing, run the risk of making ourselves miserable and crazy. If I’m the center of the universe, then every bad thing that happens, even the petty inconsequential stuff, is a personal affront. That’s the heartbreaking part.  The inspiring part, especially for a newly minted college graduate, I suppose, is that education can empower us to conceive of other possibilities beyond a self-centric universe.  And once we’re able to conceive of a universe in which we are not the center, we’re free to let go of all the anger and frustration that comes from thinking the world is out to get us.  It’s liberating as hell, but really hard, to keep this in perspective in rush hour traffic.

A more lighthearted variation on this theme came from the incomparable Glennon Doyle Melton over at her blog, Momastery. In describing her experience of feeling angry and out-of-sorts when she observed a seemingly perfect mother at the mall, she described her growing fury as the perfect mom fed her child an avocado.  I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when Glennon described how she felt that this other mom was doing all of her perfect parenting at her.  After mulling over how this kind of thinking has gotten her into hard places of anger, envy, and resentment, Glennon concedes:

“I mean, after five years – I’m ready to consider the possibility that avocado lady might not have even known I was going to be in the food court that day. It’s not likely – but it’s a possibility.”

This did me in…just the folly, the absolute silliness, of going around all day thinking that other people are orchestrating their whole lives around the goal of pissing me off.  Glennon blew that up…with an avocado, and to this day, I count it as the most important thing I’ve learned on the internet.

So even as I cope with the endurance trial which is a commute to and from Downtown Los Angeles, I’m trying to be aware of The Water, and recognize that people are not failing to use their turn signals at me.  Middle fingers down and memo received.

Guilt, Gratitude, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

I missed the memo about guilt, gratitude, and  “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”


In case you missed it, too, it’s an Oscar-winning movie from 1967, starring Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy.  It’s the story of what happens when a young white woman brings home her black fiancé, played by Poitier, to meet her parents, played Hepburn and Tracy.

Man, where to start.  I was born a few years after this movie came out, so it’s not a wonder that I didn’t see it until I was in college.  And from the opening scene I was agog at how amazing it was.  There’s an extraordinary tenderness between Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy that undoubtedly mirrored their real-life love.  But intermingled with that sweetness were little moments of exasperation, impatience, anger, and very real and serious disagreement. In my own life, I hadn’t seen many married couples disagree without being disagreeable, so the way these characters connected gave me hope that marriage really could be a transcendent, safe place where your spouse would love you and you would love your spouse, no matter what.

Beyond the glorious love of Hepburn and Tracy, there was the extraordinary dignity and shimmering intensity that was Sidney Poitier in 1967.  I was nearly weeping with admiration for him as I watched the movie, and this scene just about did me in:

Because, you see, my parents were both 19 years old when I was born, and I was unplanned, but by no means unloved. And despite some fairly humble beginnings, I was upwardly mobile from my earliest memory and consequently I put a lot of demands on my parents to give me the biggest boost they could to help me build a better life for myself.  I felt they owed it to me, and my sense of entitlement was the catalyst for some pretty bitter fights.   I was made to feel pretty guilty about my strivings, and I struggled with myself a lot, thinking that I was somehow terribly ungrateful or insufferably demanding for wanting…more.

When I saw Sidney Poitier let his father have it, there was a nearly audible click in my brain when the following point was hammered home:

Kids don’t owe their parents anything; parents owe their kids everything.


My parents didn’t always provide for me in the emotional and material ways that I wished they would have—whether they couldn’t or wouldn’t is something I no longer quibble about.  It was liberating just to know that maybe I wasn’t a bad kid for wanting to get my teeth fixed, or wanting a college education, or even for wanting a pair of designer jeans.  My parents weren’t bad people and they did what they could, but I could always feel the struggle.  It was good for me to appreciate that my parents worked hard to provide for me, but sometimes their sacrifices were made into a spectacle of sighs and eye rolling, and this made me feel like a monster.

Now that I am a parent, I am thinking about what it is that I owe my sons.  I’m not totally broke, but I’ll likely never be rich, so there will always be limits to what kind of toys, clothes, schools, etc. I can afford.  So it can’t just be about money.   I think what I owe my sons is a bit of cheerfulness.   I owe them the constant and unshakable knowledge that whatever I’m investing in him, it’s always worth it.  I owe them the reassurance that no matter the burdens I bear on their behalves, I delight in them, and that I revel in the good fortune I have in being their mom.   And just in case I ever misplace this memo, when they’re a bit older,  I owe them a ticket to a screening of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”.  Memo received.

Moods, Manners, and the High Price of Comedy

I missed the memo about moods, manners, and the high price of comedy.

The other night, on Valentine’s Day, no less,  my husband and I went out.  Without our children.  This kind of thing almost never happens, but we braved L.A. traffic and the high cost of babysitting to treat ourselves to a performance by one of our favorite comedians, Demetri Martin.

The show started a bit late, but we were totally psyched when the opening act, Levi MacDougall, finally took the stage to warm up the crowd.  We were up in the cheap seats, so I didn’t hear the whole exchange, but apparently some guy in the front heckled Levi, and they engaged in a little exchange.  It didn’t seem like any big deal.

Cut to….a few minutes later, Demetri Martin takes the stage and the first thing he did was to ask for security to toss the heckler out.  Since Demetri Martin is, after all, a comedian, the audience laughed.  But this was not a joke.  When security did not immediately toss the heckler out, Demetri Martin left the stage, then came back out, proclaiming that he “wasn’t in the mood” for the heckler’s antics.  After another moment or two, the heckler was dispatched, and the show, as shows must, went on.

The rest of the show was…just OK.  I really wonder how much more I would have enjoyed Demetri Martin’s material had he not opened the show with the whole heckler ejection episode.  I presume the heckler, like my husband and me, had been hoping to have a great night out.  What he got was humiliated in front of hundreds of people.  It didn’t seem proportionate. It made Demetri Martin seem like kind of a dick.  And the thing about Demetri Martin that I had always really liked was that he seemed bookish and boyish and nice.  And not a dick.  But because we had come all the way Downtown and paid lots of money to be there, we stayed through the show.  I didn’t laugh that much, though.  Dick jokes can be funny, but I don’t find being a dick that funny, know what I mean?

The thing that really bugged me, I think, was that Demetri Martin justified giving the heckler the boot by stating, “I’m not in the mood for this.”  Oh dear Lord.  How often are any of us truly in the mood for anything?  But we’ve got frontal lobes and whatnot, and therefore get to exercise some discretion about when to act on our pissy moods and when to just suck it up.  In short….

This is my 2-year-old. He will tell you off and tell you like it is.

Although I enjoyed my husband’s company, and the $15 beer I had at the venue, I felt kind of cheated by the whole experience.  It was an expensive night out for us that was kind of cheapened and tarnished.  I wish I had had the courage to boo at the time, but I didn’t.  But I’ll do it now….Boooooo, Demetri Martin.  Boooooo!  It cost us a lot to come to your show, but it would have cost you nothing just to be a little nicer.  Trying to mind my manners and memo received.

Tempo, Bono, and Breaking Waves

I missed the memo about tempo, Bono, and breaking waves.


Like most Gen-Xers, I have a pretty deep and abiding love for U2.  I remember seeing this video back in the early 80s….hearing Bono’s voice for the first time made my heart race, and no one on the planet plays the guitar quite like The Edge.  It was love at first listen.

My love has remained true and unwavering over all these years.  I don’t do iTunes, so I wasn’t forced to listen to the latest U2 album against my will, I listened to it voluntarily. And it’s freakin’ amazing.  I had heard the single “Every Breaking Wave” on the radio and thought it was pretty good.  But then I heard the acoustic version….and I cried.  I cried because this slowed-down, stripped-down version lets Bono’s voice stand nearly alone. After all the years and all the cigarettes, man, he’s still got it.

After watching the acoustic performance, I cried some more.  Just looking at Bono’s face, with all the creases and crags that weren’t there in 1981, but still seeing him as gorgeous as ever, made me really mark the passage of time.  Bono is one of my cultural touchstones, I suppose.  Watching him age gives me a pang of something that’s hard to describe…it’s not nostalgia exactly, but maybe it’s some kind of growing pain that comes from realizing that as my idols have aged, so have I.  There’s a weird sort of comfort in knowing that we are growing older together.

And maybe it was something about the slower tempo of the song that really got my attention…I’ve written before about how slowing things down can make all the difference, and of my own need to just slow down.  And with that slowed down tempo, I could really hear the lyrics, and this one really got me…

Baby, every dog on the street knows that we’re in love with defeat.

Ouch.  Bono seems to know a thing or two about human folly. We’re in love with defeat, and we’re chasing every breaking wave…that pretty much sums up the silliness to which we often subject ourselves.   In all of life’s endeavors, it seems like we can just keep chasing, keep aspiring, never feeling satisfied.  I think that’s the “in love with defeat” part.  But I love the lyrical alternative that’s proposed…

Are we ready to be swept off our feet?  And stop chasing every breaking wave.

Swept off our feet…that works on so many levels.  It suggests a bit of resignation, of being overwhelmed by something powerful, but that there’s some sweetness in the surrender of control.  I think that’s what getting older is starting to feel like…I’m ready to be swept off my feet by the fullness of the life I have, so that means, at least most of the time, that I don’t need to pursue every little unsatisfied ambition. Instead of chasing every breaking wave, sometimes it’s nice just take a relaxing stroll on the beach.  Toes in the sand and memo received.

Tribes, Keyboard Courage, and Parenthood

I missed the memo about tribes, keyboards, and Parenthood.

So, in my last post, I made a pretty unapologetic pronouncement of my own opinions about vaccinations…and over on my personal Facebook page, it created a little skirmish in what is tiresomely, but accurately described as, The Mommy Wars.
I wasn’t entirely surprised, but I was a little sad, by how it went down.

Given my own feelings about vaccinations, I’ll admit I felt a twinge of smug when I first read this headline:  Once A Vaccine Skeptic, This Mom Changed Her Mind.  But once I read the story, my heart broke for this mom.  By the cruelest of ironies, her unvaccinated child did have autism.  But to me, that wasn’t the sad part of her story.  The sad part was that this mom felt, that in ultimately choosing to vaccinate her kids, she would pretty much have to hand in her “crunchy mom” membership card.  (And “crunchy mom” is her term…I don’t use it either flatter or denigrate her.)

This reflects part of the experience of modern motherhood, which seems to be increasingly tribal.  Instead of just doing what we do as a matter of pragmatism and preference, everything is identity and ideology.  We encamp with parents who think like we do.  We strap on our baby carriers like body armor and wave our cloth diapers like battle flags.  The folly of this was illustrated hilariously and very effectively in this brilliant Similac commercial which showed the various factions getting ready to rumble, until they get a reminder of about what’s really important.

I suppose parents have been judging other parents since we came down from the trees.  Most parents I know would say that raising their kids is the most important thing they’re doing and thus it’s natural to get invested in believing that our own parenting choices are right, and if I’m right, then someone who’s doing things differently from me must be wrong.  But before the interwebs, all we could do was have coffee klatches and just occasionally gossip about that mom, the one who’s doing everything wrong.  But now, with social media in its many forms, parenting has become a 24-hour-news cycle with everything and everybody up for discussion.

Make no mistake, I’m no Luddite who wishes we could go back to the dark ages before the internet.  Having such easy access to so much information and communication is mostly a blessing.   Mostly.  The dark side, of course, is that emojis, though adorable, are no substitute for hearing the tone of someone’s voice, the look in their eyes, and the millions of other little cues that really help us understand each other when we’re talking face to face.  Things get lost in translation, and then worse, we tend to get emboldened by the experience of communicating online, and that’s when stuff can really get ugly.

To take a break from the noise and confusion of real parenthood, may I suggest….Parenthood.   I’m not sure if it was that outdoor dining room, or maybe it was my insane pencil skirt envy for Julia Braverman, but I really loved Parenthood and really mourned its recent finale. It was a weekly retreat into relationships that seemed very warm and very real.  And that’s not to say everything was always rosy in that world…far from it.   The show has a very high Kleenex quotient, that’s for sure. If you haven’t watched Parenthood it is definitely binge-watch worthy.

I want The Bravermans to adopt me.

And even if you’re not on Team Braverman, when it comes to this parenting thing, we’re all in the same tribe.  Memo received.